June 14, 2018 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 1Comment

EPA is inviting businesses to use asbestos.  That’s the way I read an announcement last week from EPA administrator Scott Pruitt.

Exposure to asbestos causes more than 38,000 deaths from cancer alone in the U.S. every year. Tackling this problem requires a ban on asbestos without any exceptions or exemptions.

The announcement has two parts. The first is EPA’s decision on how it defines current “conditions of use” for asbestos.  The definition is super important. It will determine where protective measures will need to be taken to protect people from asbestos exposure.

Scott Pruitt’s EPA made a horrible decision by choosing a very narrow definition of “conditions of use.”  It only includes the raw bulk chrysotile asbestos imported by the chloralkali industry (about 700 metric tons in 2016), as well as asbestos-containing products such as brake blocks for use in oil drilling, aftermarket automotive brakes and gaskets, and cement products.

EPA is completely ignoring in its definition the millions of schools, hospitals, homes and other structures that contain asbestos (e.g., recent news here, here, here) Asbestos is in use in wallboard, joint compound, and wiring insulation.  Students and teachers are walking on the asbestos-containing floor tiles and janitors strips and wax them, maintenance teams repairs asbestos-insulated boilers, and laborers repair walls with asbestos-containing stucco.  EPA has chosen to ignore the health risk posed by these likely exposures.

The second announcement is a proposed rule to address possible “significant new uses” of asbestos. Those could include reinforced plastics, roofing felt, stucco, masonry paints, floor tile, and millboard.  This is Scott Pruitt’s thumbs up for asbestos.  Instead of banning asbestos-containing products, EPA is blessing their continued use. The agency will simply require businesses that plan a “significant new use” of asbestos to notify the agency at least 90 days in advance.  In EPA lingo, they are proposing a “SNUR” for asbestos.

A SNUR for asbestos is nonsense. Materials like asbestos-containing wallboard, pipe insulation, mastic, stucco, etc., fell out of favor a few decades ago. Lawsuits were forcing companies to take financial responsibility for the asbestos-related deaths they caused.  Given the liability risk, one wonders what firm would start manufacturing or using those products again?  Or would want a public record showing they are using asbestos?

Pruitt’s announcement is a political stunt.  Instead of putting an end to the use of asbestos, he’s deceiving the public by asserting that a SNUR is the same as a ban.  A SNUR is not a ban.

Setting aside that deception, Pruitt’s proposal sends a dangerous message. EPA is suggesting by the SNUR that asbestos can be used safely.  It can not.  But a SNUR will provide a formal mechanism for a firm to get EPA’s blessing to import, manufacture, and/or use asbestos-containing products.

I can predict how this process will work. As long as a firm uses the phrase “controlled use,” “safe work practices,” “OSHA compliant,” in their SNUR request, EPA will approve the use.  If some company decides the benefit of using asbestos outweighs the liability risk, the SNUR invites them to use it.  Scott Pruitt is giving a thumbs up to asbestos.

The 2016 amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act, which had notable bipartisan support, paved the way for the U.S. to ban asbestos. In fact, when lawmakers talked about the need for the law, many used asbestos to illustrate their point. So the new law propped the door wide open for EPA to ban asbestos.

Instead of walking through that door, Scott Pruitt announced his “uprecedented action on asbestos.”   I saw a headline in Chemical Watch “SNUR would ban new use of asbestos in U.S.”   Don’t be fooled.  Pruitt’s “unprecedented action” is this SNUR nonsense.

Linda Reinstein, co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, has been fighting 10 years for a ban on asbestos.  Here’s what she told me about these two EPA announcements:

“Slick propaganda keeps flying out of the EPA. It’s criminal to allow asbestos imports and use to continue.” Reinstein’s husband Alan died in 2006 from mesothelioma. “Pruitt and Big Chem may think they will succeed trying to spin a SNUR as a ban—but they are wrong.”

The public health community won’t fall for it either.  The American Public Health Association (here), the Collegium Ramazzini (here), the World Health Organization (here), and others all agree that the way to eliminate asbestos-related disease is to ban asbestos.  None have suggested that asbestos can be used safely and that’s what a SNUR suggests.

Scott Pruitt is giving asbestos two thumbs up.  A SNUR on asbestos is NOT a ban.  A ban is a ban and that’s what is needed to protect public health.


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